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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 20. Once More At Burton's Inn
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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 20. Once More At Burton's Inn Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :2039

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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 20. Once More At Burton's Inn

CHAPTER XX. ONCE MORE AT BURTON'S INN

Again Sara Wrandall found herself in that never-to-be-forgotten room at Burton's Inn. On that grim night in March, she had entered without fear or trembling because she knew what was there. Now she quaked with a mighty chill of terror, for she knew not what was there in the quiet, now sequestered room. Burton had told them on their arrival after a long drive across country that patrons of the inn invariably asked which room it was that had been the scene of the tragedy, and, on finding out, refused point-blank to occupy it. In consequence, he had been obliged to transform it into a sort of store and baggage room.

Sara stood in the middle of the murky room, for the shutters had long been closed to the light of day, and looked about her in awe at the heterogeneous mass of boxes, trunks, bundles and rubbish, scattered over the floor without care or system. She had closed the door behind her and was quite alone. Light sneaked in through the cracks in the shutters, but so meagrely that it only served to increase the gloom. A dismantled bedstead stood heaped up in the corner. She did not have to be told what bed it was. The mattress was there too, rolled up and tied with a thick garden rope. She knew there were dull, ugly blood-stains upon it. Why the thrifty Burton had persevered in keeping this useless article of furniture, she could only surmise. Perhaps it was held as an inducement to the morbidly curious who always seek out the gruesome and gloat even as they shudder.

For a long time she stood immovable just inside the door, recalling the horrid picture of another day. She tried to imagine the scene that had been enacted there with gentle, lovable Hetty Glynn and her whilom husband as the principal characters. The girl had told the whole story of that ugly night. Sara tried to see it as it actually had transpired. For months this present enterprise had been in her mind: the desire to see the place again, to go there with old impressions which she could leave behind when ready to emerge in a new frame of mind. It was here that she meant to shake off the shackles of a horrid dream, to purge herself of the last vestige of bitterness, to cleanse her mind of certain thoughts and memories.

Downstairs Booth waited for her. He heard the story of the tragedy from the surly inn-keeper, who crossly maintained that his business had been ruined. Booth was vaguely impressed, he knew not why, by Burton's description of the missing woman. "I'd say she was about the size of Mrs. Wrandall herself, and much the same figger," he said, as he had said a thousand times before. "My wife noticed it the minute she saw Mrs. Wrandall. Same height and everything."

A bell rang sharply and Burton glanced over his shoulder at the indicator on the wall behind the desk. He gave a great start and his jaw sagged.

"Great Scott!" he gasped. A curious greyness stole over his face. "It's--it's the bell in that very room. My soul, what can--"

"Mrs. Wrandall is up there, isn't she?" demanded Booth.

"It ain't rung since the night he pushed the button for--Oh, gee! You're right. She IS up there. My, what a scare it gave me." He wiped his brow. Turning to a boy, he commanded him to answer the bell. The boy went slowly, and as he went he removed his hands from his pockets. He came back an instant later, more swiftly than he went, with the word that "the lady up there" wanted Mr. Booth to come upstairs.

She was waiting for him in the open doorway. A shaft of bright sunlight from a window at the end of the hall fell upon her. Her face was colourless, haggard. He paused for an instant to contrast her as she stood there in the pitiless light with the vivid creature he had put upon canvas so recently.

She beckoned to him and turned back into the room. He followed.

"This is the room, Brandon, where my husband met the death he deserved," she said quietly.

"Deserved? Good heavens, Sara, are you--"

"I want you to look about you and try to picture how this place looked on the night of the murder. You have a vivid imagination. None of this rubbish was here. Just a bed, a table and two chairs. There was a carpet on the floor. There were two people here, a man and a woman. The woman had trusted the man. She trusted him until the hour in which he died. Then she found him out. She had come to this place, believing it was to be her wedding night. She found no minister here. The man laughed at her and scoffed. Then she knew. In horror, shame, desperation she tried to break away from him. He was strong. She was a good woman; a virtuous, honourable woman. She saved herself."

He was staring at her with dilated eyes. Slowly the truth was being borne in upon him.

"The woman was--Hetty?" came hoarsely from his stiffening lips. "My God, Sara!"

She came close to him and spoke in a half-whisper. "Now you know the secret. Is it safe with you?"

He opened his lips to speak, but no words came forth. Paralysis seemed to have gripped not only his throat but his senses. He reeled. She grasped his arm in a tense, fierce way, and whispered:

"Be careful! No one must hear what we are saying." She shot a glance down the deserted hall. "No one is near. I made sure of that. Don't speak! Think first--think well, Brandon Booth. It is what you have been seeking for months:--the truth. You share the secret with us now. Again I ask, is it safe with you?"

"My God!" he muttered again, and passed his hand over his eyes. His brow was wet. He looked at his fingers dumbly as if expecting to find them covered with blood.

"Is it safe with you?" for the third time.

"Safe? Safe?" he whispered, following her example without knowing that he did so. "I--I can't believe you, Sara. It can't be true."

"It IS true."

"You have known--all the time?"

"From that night when I stood where we are standing now."

"And--and--SHE?"

"I had never seen her until that night. I saved her."

He dropped suddenly upon the trunk that stood behind him, and buried his face in his hands. For a long time she stood over him, her interest divided between him and the hall, wherein lay their present peril.

"Come," she said at last. "Pull yourself together. We must leave this place. If you are not careful, they will suspect something downstairs."

He looked up with haggard eyes, studying her face with curious intentness.

"What manner of woman are you, Sara?" he questioned, slowly, wonderingly.

"I have just discovered that I am very much like other women, after all," she said. "For awhile I thought I was different, that I was stronger than my sex. But I am just as weak, just as much to be pitied, just as much to be scorned as any one of my sisters. I have spoiled a great act by stooping to do a mean one. God will bear witness that my thoughts were noble at the outset; my heart was soft. But, come! There is much more to tell that cannot be told here. You shall know everything."

They went downstairs and out into the crisp autumn air. She gave directions to her chauffeur. They were to traverse for some distance the same road she had taken on that ill-fated night a year and a half before. In course of time the motor approached a well-remembered railway crossing.

"Slow down, Cole," she said. "This is a mean place--a very mean place." Turning to Booth, who had been sitting grim and silent beside her for miles, she said, lowering her voice: "I remember that crossing yonder. There is a sharp curve beyond. This is the place. Midway between the two crossings, I should say. Please remember this part of the road, Brandon, when I come to the telling of that night's ride to town. Try to picture this spot--this smooth, straight road as it might be on a dark, freezing night in the very thick of a screaming blizzard, with all the world abed save--two women."

(Illustration: For a long time she stood over him, her interest divided between him and the hall)

In his mind he began to draw the picture, and to place the two women in the centre of it, without knowing the circumstances. There was something fascinating in the study he was making, something gruesome and full of sinister possibilities for the hand of a virile painter. He wondered how near his imagination was to placing the central figures in the picture as they actually appeared on that secret night.

At sunset they went together to the little pavilion at the end of the pier which extended far out into the Sound. Here they were safe from the ears of eavesdroppers. The boats had been stowed away for the winter. The wind that blew through the open pavilion, now shorn of all its comforts and luxuries, was cold, raw and repelling. No one would disturb them here.

With her face set toward the sinking east, she leaned against one of the thick posts, and, in a dull, emotionless voice, laid bare the whole story of that dreadful night and the days that followed. She spared no details, she spared not herself in the narration.

He did not once interrupt her. All the time she was speaking he was studying the profile of her face as if fascinated by its strange immobility. For the matter of a full half-hour he sat on the rail, his back against a post, his arms folded across the breast of the thick ulster he wore, staring at her, drinking in every word of the story she told. A look of surprise crept into his face when she came to the point where the thought of marrying Hetty to the brother of her victim first began to manifest itself in her designs. For a time the look of incredulity remained, to be succeeded by utter scorn as she went on with the recital. Her reasons, her excuses, her explanations for this master-stroke in the way of compensation for all that she had endured at the hands of the scornful Wrandalls, all of whom were hateful to her without exception, stirred him deeply. He began to understand the forces that compelled her to resort to this Machiavellian plan for revenge on them. She admitted everything: her readiness to blight Hetty's life for ever; her utter callousness in laying down these ugly plans; her surpassing vindictiveness; her reflections on the triumph she was to enjoy when her aims were fully attained. She confessed to a genuine pity for Hetty Castleton from the beginning, but it was outweighed by that thing she could only describe as an obsession!...How she hated the Wrandalls!...Then came the real awakening: when the truth came to her as a revelation from God. Hetty had not been to blame. The girl was innocent of the one sin that called for vengeance so far as she was concerned. The slaying of Challis Wrandall was justified! All these months she had been harbouring a woman she believed to have been his mistress as well as his murderess. It was not so much the murderess that she would have foisted upon the Wrandalls as a daughter, but the mistress!...She loved the girl, she had loved her from that first night. Back of it all, therefore, lay the stern, unsuspected truth: from the very beginning she instinctively had known this girl to be innocent of guile....Her house of cards fell down. There was nothing left of the plans on which it had been constructed. It had all been swept away, even as she strove to protect it against destruction, and the ground was strewn with the ashes of fires burnt out....She was shocked to find that she had even built upon the evil spot! Almost word for word she repeated Hetty's own story of her meeting with Challis Wrandall, and how she went, step by step and blindly, to the last scene in the tragedy, when his vileness, his true nature was revealed to her. The girl had told her everything. She had thought herself to be in love with Wrandall. She was carried away by his protestations. She was infatuated. (Sara smiled to herself as she spoke of this. She knew Challis Wrandall's charm!) The girl believed in him implicitly. When he took her to Burton's Inn it was to make her his wife, as she supposed. He had arranged everything. Then came the truth. She defended herself....

"I came upon her in the road on that wild night, Brandon, at the place I pointed out. Can you picture her as I have described her? Can you picture her despair, her hopelessness, her misery? I have told you everything, from beginning to end. You know how she came to me, how I prepared her for the sacrifice, how she left me. I have not written to her. I cannot. She must hate me with all her soul, just as I have hated the Wrandalls, but with greater reason, I confess. She would have given herself up to the law long ago, if it had not been for exposing me to the world as her defender, her protector. She knew she was not morally guilty of the crime of murder. In the beginning she was afraid. She did not know our land, our laws. In time she came to understand that she was in no real peril, but then it was too late. A confession would have placed me in an impossible position. You see, she thought of me all this time. She loved me as no woman ever loved another. Was not I the wife of the man she had killed, and was not I the noblest of all women in her eyes? God! And to think of what I had planned for her!"

This was the end of the story.

The words died away in a sort of whimpering wail, falling in with the wind to be lost to his straining ears. Her head drooped, her arms hung limply at her side.

For a long time he sat there in silence, looking out over the darkening water, unwilling, unable indeed, to speak. His heart was full of compassion for her, mingling strangely with what was left of scorn and horror. What could he say to her?

At last she turned to him. "Now you know all that I can tell you of Hetty Castleton,--of Hetty Glynn. You could not have forced this from me, Brandon. She WOULD not tell you. It was left for me to do in my own good time. Well, I have spoken. What have you to say?"

"I can only say, Sara, that I thank God for EVERYTHING," he said slowly.

"For everything?"

"I thank God for you, for her and for everything. I thank God that she found him out in time, that she killed him, that you shielded her, that you failed to carry out your devilish scheme, and that your heart is very sore to-day."

"You do not despise me?"

"No. I am sorry for you."

Her eyes narrowed. "I don't want you to feel sorry for me."

"You don't understand. I am sorry for you because you have found yourself out and must be despising yourself."

"You have guessed the truth. I despise myself. But what could be expected of me?" she asked ironically. "As the Wrandalls would say, 'blood will tell.'"

"Nonsense! Don't talk like that! It is quite unworthy of you. In spite of everything, Sara, you are wonderful. The very thing you tried to do, the way you went about it, the way you surrender, makes for greatness in you. If you had gone on with it and succeeded, that fact alone would have put you in the class with the great, strong, virile women of history. It--"

"With the Medicis, the Borgias and--" she began bitterly.

"Yes, with them. But they were great women, just the same. You are greater, for you have more than they possessed: a conscience. I wish I could tell you just what I feel. I haven't the words. I--"

"I only want you to tell me the truth. Do you despise me?"

"Again I say that I do not. I can only say that I regard you with--yes, with AWE."

"As one might think of a deadly serpent."

"Hardly that," he said, smiling for the first time. He crossed over and laid his hand on her shoulder. "Don't think too meanly of yourself. I understand it all. You lived for months without a heart, that's all."

"You put it very gently."

"I think I'm right. Now, you've got it back, and it's hungry for the sweet, good things of life. You want to be happy. You want to love again and to be loved. You don't want to be pitied. I understand. It's the return of a heart that went away long months ago and left an empty place that you filled with gall. The bitterness is gone. There is something sweet in its place. Am I not right?"

She hesitated. "If you mean that I want to be loved by my enemies, Brandon, you are wrong," she said clearly. "I have not been chastened in that particular."

"You mean the Wrandalls?"

"It is not in my nature to love my enemies. We stand on the same footing as before, and always shall. They understand me, I understand them. I am glad that my project failed, not for their sake, but for my own."

He was silent. This woman was beyond him. He could not understand a nature like this.

"You say nothing. Well, I can't ask you to understand. We will not discuss my enemies, but my friends. What do you intend to do in respect to Hetty?"

"I am going to make her my wife," he said levelly.

She turned away. It was now quite dark. He could not see the expression on her face.

"What you have heard does not weaken your love for her?"

"No. It strengthens it."

"You know what she has done. She has taken a life with her own hands. Can you take her to your bosom, can you make her the mother of your own children? Remember, there is blood on her hands."

"Ah, but her heart is clean!"

"True," she said moodily, "her heart is clean."

"No cleaner than yours is now, Sara."

She uttered a short, mocking laugh. "It isn't necessary to say a thing like that to me."

"I beg your pardon."

Her manner changed abruptly. She turned to him, intense and serious.

"She is so far away, Brandon. On the other side of the world, and she is full of loathing for me. How am I to regain what I have lost? How am I to make her understand? She went away with that last ugly thought of me, with the thought of me as I appeared to her on that last, enlightening day. All these months it has been growing more horrible to her. It has been beside her all the time. All these months she has known that I pretended to love her as--"

"I don't believe you know Hetty as well as you think you do," he broke in. "You forget that she loved you with all her soul. You can't kill love so easily as all that. It will be all right, Sara. You must write and ask her to come back. It--"

"Ah, but you don't know!" Then she related the story of the liberated canary bird. "Hetty understands. The cage door is open. She may return when she chooses, but--don't you see?--she must come of her own free will."

"You will not ask her to come?"

"No. It is the test. She will know that I have told you everything. You will go to her. Then she may understand. If she forgives she will come back. There is nothing else to say, nothing else to consider."

"I shall go to her at once," he said resolutely.

She gave him a quick, searching glance.

"She may refuse to marry you, even now, Brandon."

"She CAN'T!" he cried. An instant later his face fell. "By Jove, I--I suppose the law will have to be considered now. She will at least have to go through the form of a trial."

She whirled on him angrily. "The law? What has the law to do with it? Don't be a fool!"

"She ought to be legally exonerated," he said.

Her fingers gripped his arm fiercely. "I want you to understand one thing, Brandon. The story I have told you was for your ears alone. The secret lives with us and dies with us."

He looked his relief. "Right! It must go no farther. It is not a matter for the law to decide. You may trust me."

"I am cold," she said. He heard her teeth chatter distinctly as she pulled the thick mantle closer about her throat and shoulders. "It is very raw and wet down here. Come!"

As she started off along the long, narrow pier, he sprang after her, grasping her arm. She leaned rather heavily against him for a few steps and then drew herself up. Her teeth still chattered, her arm trembled in his clasp.

"By Jove, Sara, this is bad," he cried, in distress. "You're chilled to the marrow."

"Nerves," she retorted, and he somehow felt that her lips were set and drawn.

"You must get to bed right away. Hot bath, mustard, and all that. I'll not stop for dinner. Thanks just the same. I will be over in the morning."

"When will you sail?" she asked, after a moment.

"I can't go for ten days, at least. My mother goes into the hospital next week for an operation, as I've told you. I can't leave until after that's over. Nothing serious, but--well, I can't go away. I shall write to Hetty to-night, and cable her to-morrow. By the way, I--I don't know just where to find her. You see, we were not to write to each other. It was in the bargain. I suppose you don't know how I can--"

"Yes, I can tell you precisely where she is. She is in Venice, but leaves there to-morrow for Rome, by the Express."

"Then you have been hearing from her?" he cried sharply.

"Not directly. But I will say this much: there has not been a day since she landed in England that I have not received news of her. I have not been out of touch with her, Brandon, not even for an hour."

"Good heaven, Sara! You don't mean to say you've had her shadowed by--by detectives," he exclaimed, aghast.

"Her maid is a very faithful servant," was her ambiguous rejoinder.

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